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Susan Ito trying to do it all: reading writing mothering spousing daughtering working living

Saturday, September 02, 2006

I'm Taking My Blog and Moving...

over to Wordpress. Please change your blogrolls, Bloglines, bookmarks etc. and visit me at my new home.

Friday, September 01, 2006

So You Want to Get An MFA?

My regular class at UC Extension, Writing Short Fiction From Life Experience, has been a little underenrolled as of late, and so they've decided to "shake things up" a little bit. I've been asked to teach a class called "So You Want To Get an MFA." (I feel like I should be up there in the front of the class with my hands on my hips, saying, "Prove it!") Apparently this class has been quite popular in the past.

According to the class description, this course is designed to help applicants choose schools, write their personal essays, make decisions about recommendation letters, choose and polish the creative work they’ll be including, and build a spotless application. In four meetings over eight weeks, you’ll have plenty of time to go over the specifics of your background in round-table discussions.

I feel a little dubious that people will want to take a class to figure out how to get into graduate school, but if they feel it will be helpful, I want to help them. I will try to make it interesting and fun and useful. I'll have a panel of current MFA students, teachers, post-grads and people who have been involved in low-residency MFA programs.

Personally, I am very happy that I got my MFA. It was a very busy time (I had a 3 year old and was pregnant the 2nd year) but it was also a total gift. I had been a science/health professional major as an undergraduate and was never asked to read a piece of literature. (criminal, in my mind) I struggled academically. I was an absolute dunce, really, and it wreaked havoc on my self esteem.

So when I was in my literature courses and my writing workshops in graduate school, I felt as if I'd died and gone to heaven. I felt like I was getting a true second chance. I was finally immersing myself in the world that I'd longed to be in forever: the world of words.

I met three of my closest friends in the world while I was in my MFA program. We formed a writing group that met for over a decade, and we are bonded in a way that is truly unique. We know each other from the inside out.

My decision making process in choosing an MFA program was a simple one: it was based largely on geography. It wasn't the world's most prestigious or well known program, but it worked for me. I wonder about these prospective students who have infinite freedom in choosing their programs. Will some of them end up across the country, or in other parts of the world? I'm curious about these writers, who they will be, and where they will end up.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Novelist's Notebook

The other day, I had a great consultation with K, one of my writer friends. She has managed to write and publish six books in the time that I have struggled to complete just one, and I thought it would be good to get some tips as I embark on a New Project.

I remember once she came to be a guest speaker at my now-defunct mother-daughter book group. She brought along all kinds of show and tell stuff, but the most fascinating object was a ratty looking spiral notebook, the kind you get for 99 cents at Back-to-School Sales. This notebook was totally filled with all kinds of scribbling and arrows and exclamation points. She said everything for her novels went into these books, one notebook per novel.

I remembered this notebook recently when the idea for my new book was feeling very embryonic (it still is). I felt like I could not properly begin this project unless I studied these writing notebooks. I drove to K's house and said, "Show me your notebooks!" She very obligingly took them down and let me pore through them. I was fascinated. I was thrilled. There, on the first page of this notebook, "Notes for _______." (something that didn't, or rarely turned out to be the published title of the eventual novel) And then her ideas. "This book is about character X, who is in this situation, and then this happens, and then this." A very rough outline, not by chapters, but by Beginning, Middle and End. All on one page, and scribbled very fast. The next page, a tentative list of characters. Who lives in the book? Who will get airtime? And then some notes on backstory. Some addition and subtraction, figuring out who is what age during what point in history. A drawing of the house where the character lives, the key locations, a garden, a wall, a tree that looks like this with a hole in the middle. WOW. I was just completely captivated by this notebook.

I asked her, "What is the relationship between this notebook, and the typed manuscript pages?" She was just taking a chocolate cake out of the oven, and she laughed. "This is so much fun! Nobody ever asks me these questions. Nobody ever cares." Oh boy, do I care. Not like I'm following a recipe or a prescription or anything, but this time I had this feeling that something that I had been doing was missing, and I needed to know about this part of the process.

It is very left brain-right brainy. The notebook is the intuitive side, the curious and playful side, that asks all the questions, and plays around and tries things out. The narrative, the typed sentences, is the side that tries to produce what the notebook is asking for.

For all this time, for a LONG time, I have been trying (and failing) to do only the manuscript part, while keeping all the rest of it in my head: the outlines, the characters, the way things are supposed to work, what the house looks like, the map, etc. It is like trying to cook completely from scratch and completely without any sense of recipe, just hoping it will turn out right.

How did this happen? I used to write in a journal religiously, like breathing. I needed it, in order to live, and to understand how I was living. But then when I began writing "seriously" (hah! hah!) my journal writing dwindled down to almost nothing. I think a terrible self-consciousness took over. I wanted everything to be profound and beautifully written and meaningful and, well, literary. Ugh.

So yesterday I pulled a medium-sized blank notebook out of one of my drawers and wrote at the top of the first page, "Notes for that book about Silences." (that's all I will say for now) And I just started describing it.
This book is about X (no name yet), who is ___ years old and who lives with _____ in the city of _____.
Then I started describing the people she lives with and what they are like. And I started getting excited. Questions popped up off the page, and then I either answered myself, "I don't KNOW!!" or, some idea, and a bunch of ????s around it. Then I wrote a bunch of the backstory, surprising myself at every turn, and then I did some math and was also surprised at a few things I discovered. If X was ___ yrs old when Y happened, then Z must have been ___, which changes everything! I made a list of characters. I was literally cackling with glee as my hand flew madly across the pages. (oh, isn't that a horrible sentence?) I had so much fun.

Somehow, when I began taking writing Seriously, I forgot about or didn't let myself do this part, even though it is something I tell my students to do (have fun). I have been so worried. But now I can't wait to get back to my little yellow checkered notebook. There are a lot more questions I have yet to ask, and to answer. And then I will return to the keyboard, when I'm ready.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Quik Blog

Thanks to Harlow's Monkey for letting me steal her quick-blogging format. For when there just isn't time for a real blog. This one is for the past TWO weeks.


Getting A Life, short stories by Helen Simpson

Why Do I Love These People? by Po Bronson
Too many blogs

Loggerheads (great)
My Life Without Me (also great)
The Secret Lives of Dentists (surprisingly good, based on Jane Smiley's novella The Age of Grief)

Memorable eats:

NY Cheesecake from Ruth Reichl's Garlic & Sapphires
a bunch of dim sum from Oakland Chinatown
two birthday dinners: one out at Sushi Zone (also in Oakland Chinatown!) and homemade one - crab cakes, salad, cupcakes


Chicken parmesan wreath for first day of school dinner
Grilled chicken teriyaki rice bowls
Flank steak
I can't remember what else, but SOMEthing appeared on the table virtually every night


Turned 47 (gulp)
Had a collage party with a bunch o' my girlfriends
Picked up younger daughter from circus camp
Hosted a dinner reception for 40+ people at our house
Started older daughter off at junior year of high school
Had intensive session with writing mentor friend and began outlining new novel
Picked up 17 yr old Japanese exchange student
Back to school shopping x 2

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I Want to Play, Too

I know I am a hundred years behind with my blogging, and it's because I've been reading wayyyy too many blogs lately. Mostly adoption themed blogs: Twice the Rice, Harlow's Monkey, A Birth Project and more. There's been some very articulate and provocative stuff out there, but today it was all play, thanks to the Advertising Generator. I couldn't help tossing mine in there as well and here is what it came up with:
You'll Never Put A Better Bit Of Susanito On Your Knife.
Beanz Meanz Susanito.
Moms Like You Choose Susanito. (ha ha, inside joke)
It Needn't Be Hell With Susanito.
They're Waffly Susanito.
Big Chocolate Susanito.
Happiness is Susanito-Shaped.
Susanito is so Bracing.
The Loudest Noise Comes From The Electric Susanito.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


When I was growing up, my grandmother traveled everywhere with us. Then, when I went to college and beyond, she continued hanging out with my parents. They went to Florida a dozen times, and also took shorter trips, to my dad's investor club meetings in the Poconos, and once to Hawaii, and of course out to California to visit me. At least once or twice a week, the three of them went out to dinner together. I never thought what a funny threesome they were - but they always sent me photos (good Japanese tourists, they always carried their cameras around their necks) of the three of them in various configurations.

Well, what goes around, comes around or whatever. Or is it: history repeats itself. Because now it's my husband and me, + my mother. This week, both of our girls were Elsewhere, and he had the week off from work, and we didn't really feel we could leave her alone here. So the three of us trundled off to Sausalito, and stayed in a little hotel for two nights, and did the kind of things she likes. She doesn't like "hanging out" like we do (more on that later). She was up at 7:00am, dressed and ready to go. "What's on the agenda?" she asked. So even though we'd told her to "bring books" we knew this was not going to be any kind of our regular reading + napping kind of vacation.

We decided to take the ferry boat from Sausalito to the San Francisco Ferry Building, where we browsed the Book Passage bookstore (integral part of any vacation: bookstores), ogled the lovely produce and had a great lunch out on the back patio, with the Bay Bridge stretching out overhead. It was a great little expedition. The ferry ride was really fun, and beautiful, and something we really only do every few years. We came back and played tourist, walking around the shops, and then came back to the hotel so Mom and husband could watch their nightly baseball game. It feels like a nice groove, and weirdly enough, after decades of resisting her company, I like having my mom around. I love it that she and my husband are incredibly close buddies. It's all very surprising and strange and nice.

Then we came home and I worked for half a day, and then just he and I took off for one more night in Inverness, to the cutest little cottage hanging over the water of Tomales Bay. There, we got to do our standard vacation of reading, sleeping, cuddling, hanging out in front of the fire and just being quiet. Left to our own devices, this is our perfect vacation. We don't like doing a lot of touristy stuff, and we don't like doing much of anything that takes a lot of effort. We just like doing what we rarely get to do at home: hanging out quietly with a good book and each other. We're both reading books we're liking a lot, which is good luck. I'm reading Dave King's The Ha-Ha, which was enthusiastically recommended over at Readerville. It's a startling, fascinating and very moving book. He's reading The Good Family by Terry Gamble. Which is something I really love about him. This is a book that I would normally just keep on my side of the bed, because it's written by a woman, and it's about Family, one would consider it "women's literature," but he managed to find it and pack it in HIS suitcase, and he's really liking it a lot.

Postscript on Sausalito: When I first moved to the Bay Area, one of my new friends insisted I ought to move to Sausalito so everyone could call me "Susanito from Sausalito." I still think that's not a bad idea.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Unicorns United

I was really into unicorns when I was little, and I think it wasn't just because a lot of little girls are into unicorns. It was because I felt like I was the only one of my kind: mixed-race, adopted, only child.

One of the most powerful aspects of Pact Camp this past week, was that a lot of people, including myself, got to feel like we were just a little less unicornish. I spent the week in a cabin with other adult adoptees of color, which was incredibly moving, powerful, hilarious and beautiful. Little kids got to see lots of other kids, and counselors, who looked like them. Parents got to hang with other parents who had adopted kids of color. That was one of the best things about this past week: a lot of people getting to have the feeling that they're not the Only Ones. One five year old girl said she wanted to live at camp "forever" and that she'd already forgotten what her house looked like, because camp was her real home.

One couple spoke at the end of camp and said that two years ago, they lived in a small, all-white community in New England. (their daughter is African American) Coming to camp was a huge revelation for them, when they saw how huge it was for her daughter to be with similar peers. They took a huge leap and a huge financial risk and moved to the Bay Area, to a much more diverse community. This year, they said, camp was great, but the remarkable thing was that it was no longer so different from their everyday lives.

I think about what it would have been like for me to come to a camp of adopted people when I was younger. I think it would have been enormous. I only knew one other adopted person when I was going through school, and we never really spoke about it. But my mother would point him out and tell me that he came from the same agency as I did. It made me feel like we had a little invisible bond, if maybe we "remembered" each other from that mysterious Agency place. One of my closest friends was a girl whose father had left the family when she was an infant, and I think I felt bonded to her because we both had something missing, something invisible in our families, in our histories. I think coming to adoption camp would have been huge for me. Which is why I'm doing this job now. It's STILL huge.